Left to right: Dorian, Mel, and Jayhawk / Photo courtesy of The Outfit TX
The atmosphere has always been part of the appeal of rap from Texas, a place where the legacy of DJ Screw’s blown-out, slowed-down sound looms large and the gospel is spoken in Pimp C’s crackling, accented snarl. So when a group called The Outfit TX popped up in a Houston a few years ago making music that sounded like several decades of regional rap pulsing through a thick haze of weed smoke, they seemed like an immediate revelation, a continuation of this tradition and an obvious step forward into the brave new Tumblr-ready future. Over the ensuing years, as the trio of Mel, Jayhawk, and Dorian moved back to their hometown of Dallas and released more music, that sound crystallized, peaking with the resolutely grim Down by the Trinity, which the group released last fall.
“I like to tell people that [the way] The Notebook is a love story, Down by the Trinity is a hate story,” Mel told me on a recent visit to New York. “You can’t have one without the other.” But the dark, politicized vision of Down by the Trinity was also an endpoint of sorts for the group and their gauzy atmospheric experimentation.
With this summer’s Green Lights: Everythang Goin’, which Noisey is premiering below, they’re working within the crisp-sounding, high-energy world of contemporary trap, giving the prevailing template of modern rap an ominous, slowed-down Texas touch and highlighting what happens when guys who have spent years honing other aspects of their craft as rappers tear into a new sound. Jayhawk, the trio’s most traditionally technical rapper, is particularly electrifying, growling as he tackles the massive, stuttering beats. Many of those, for the first time, are from outside producers like Dallas mainstay Stunt N Dozier, who’s produced hits for Dorrough, Trae tha Truth, Dom Kennedy and more.
“He’s been doing his thing for a minute,” Mel explained. “People just don’t know about Stunt because of the whole lost Texas period we’ve been in. Everybody coming and taking our production, taking our wave, and not really crediting us.” The result is something that sounds more immediate than anything The Outfit have ever done.
“A lot of the tracks on the album we just made [with] pure feeling,” Mel explained. “I made that clear from the beginning: I don’t want to discuss no records. I don’t want to hear no beat in the background or have no huddle. Let’s make this shit as visceral as possible.” I sat down with Mel, who oozes laid-back country charm and speaks in an authoritative Texas drawl, to talk more about the project and the period leading up to it.
Noisey: Tell me about Down by the Trinity and how that led into this project.
Mel of The Outfit TX: So in the spring of 2014, an incident happened to me in my life that kind of put me in a depression. It was like one of the most difficult things I’ve ever dealt with in my life. So throughout this process of us putting out these videos off of Cognac/Four Corner Room, I’m dealing with that, and I started making beats at night as therapy, at like four or five in the morning.
A lot of pieces—“Cut For Me,” “Burn”—that shit was made by myself in the wee hours of the night, really just as therapy. I didn’t even tell Dorian or Hawk about it. I was just making it for me. I looked up and I had about six, seven, eight pieces. I remember I got in Photoshop—I do all of our artwork as well—and I put a Confederate flag, and I oversaturated it and put some really roughly cropped flames on top of it, and I turned those blue and purple, then I put it on a black five-by-five canvas and put a texture the top, just listening to my shit one night. And it clicked. So I presented it to Dorian and Jayhawk, and they were kind of taken aback. Then we realized I had kind of segued into a new mode. I would say God definitely provided me with more adversity so I could stay in that mode. 2014 and 2015 was one of the most difficult years for us and myself especially, so by the time 2015 came around Dorian was ready to jump in and pick up where I was leaving off, and that’s how we ended up with Down By the Trinity. And we actually ended up putting out an EP called Deep Ellum right before we dropped Trinity.
What is Deep Ellum? Can you explain it?
Deep Ellum is the arts district in Dallas. It’s one of the most historic parts of the city. It died for a while just during the 2000s, the crunk era. A lot of the clubs and bars that were friendly to rap music, they kind of closed their doors to rap music because of a lot of the violence.
It was like zombieland almost, and like five or six years ago it started to really take a new life. A lot of people are really investing in Deep Ellum, and a lot of those venues are friendly to rap music, so the universe has conspired to make Deep Ellum what it is and what it should’ve always been for Dallas. It’s booming right now. It’s one of the brightest spots of the city, so we named the EP after that part of Dallas because we felt like it exemplifies exactly what we are. South Dallas is an interesting gumbo of different types of people that gives it all unique culture. It’s a lot like the Bay: It’s hood as hell, but it’s eclectic and cultured as hell too. You got your Boosies just as much as you got your Erykah Badus.
Mel / Photo by Matt Seger
It was a more collaborative project with other Dallas artists, too.
Exactly, and you had collaborations between artists who you can argue are more hipster type, internet artists, and then you had songs in there where we collaborated with more street type artists. Again that’s just indicative of us being universal dudes. We also wanted to give folks a project for the summertime. In the summer you don’t really want to be too dark or too heavy.
Down by the Trinity became its own monster because the shootings happened with Mike Brown, Ferguson and all of that stuff. The Black Lives Matter movement really took off and grew legs. The police brutality became a hot button issue last year, and so did the racial relationships between all of us all of the stuff we swept under the rug for so many generations.
Down where we live in the Gulf Coast it’s not under the rug. It hasn’t changed much. You’ve got people alive and well in Texas who completely hate each other. The Klan is still around. The city is still segregated, even Dallas. If you visit and kick it up north it’ll look like something out of the fucking Jetsons. The buildings glow in the dark and change colors. It’s progressive as shit, all kind of development, big houses. It’s beautiful. That’s where everything is. But when you go below I-30 and you get to Southern Dallas, it looks like 1998 in some areas. Where I grew up it’s still some of the same construction cones in some of the same parts of the street that were there in ’96.
Dallas is the tale of two cities, completely. The way they have kept certain people away from the development and how they’ve grown just one part of the city—it’s a perverse disparity. You’re not going to find a Chipotle in Southern Dallas, just for example. So living that every day, that started to become a factor we explored in Down By the Trinity. I feel it might’ve been still ahead of its time a little bit, especially with everything that’s been happened recently.
I like to tell people that The Notebook is a love story; Down by the Trinity is a hate story. You can’t have one without the other. We love to talk about love, but no one wants to contend with the other side of the game. I was forced to wrestle with that for myself in 2014, and I feel like every human that lives a full life, you’re going to have different seasons. Eventually the winter will come, and you’ll be forced when it does come to see yourself differently than you usually see yourself.
How did things evolve from there?
So now strangely and ironically as artists this year we kind of segued into a different mode. Another aspect of Down by the Trinity was money—money being a definitely a spiritual possession just like hate, just like sex and lust and other elements that we explored. Money was something that ended up lingering. I feel like we’re the new age Underground Kings just because of our story. We aren’t signed we don’t have a situation. No one is funding us. We’re out here doing what we got to do to continue to put our art out and pursue our dreams and do our thing. We deal with a lot of shit behind being broke and trying to do this shit. Just living that type of punk rock, DIY underground rap lifestyle in 2015.
Because of that we spent the beginning half of this year getting to the money, living real fast, just having to go get it. It was like a genuine we’re living fast type of thing, so that’s kind of the concept for Green Lights: Everythang Goin’. It’s literally almost like a sonic documentary to how we’ve been living. We don’t feel like we’re alone in that life. It’s a lot of folks. I’m in New York, and it’s like everybody moves fast up here. I love it. That’s really my speed, even though I might talk a little slow, walk a little slow. I really like to move fast as far as getting to it. In that fast lifestyle comes a lot. It comes with a different psyche. You go to north Louisiana folks aren’t operating like this. We made records differently than we had before.
This is the first project where we actually outsourced the production. And it was perfect because, like I say, we were already moving at a faster pace than before, and it was kind of a perfect situation to have somebody already doing that part. The production part takes a lot out of Dorian and me. And the shit Stunt was sending through, him already being a person I admired—I was a fan of Stunt before I was a producer myself. I used to go to the club and jig and turn up to Stunt’s songs and beats. It was something that needed to happen for us to just provide a new iteration of The Outfit TX. That’s what we’re all about, is shifting paradigms. And so we realized almost on some paradox shit that we kind of created a paradigm for ourselves. So we kind of wanted to switch ‘em up. It was time for a new wave.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.